The Secret To Beautiful Colour In All Your Photos – Color Management Basics

As the summer breeze swept through her house the feint smell of rubbish filled my nostrils. Toys littered the lounge and hallway. A small child bike sat in the middle of the hallway, next to the muddy shoes and dog basket. She lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply, tilted her head back, and the smoke rose to the ceiling and hung over us like a thick cloud of pollution on a clear day.

“Here they are” said my neighbour placing a thick, black photo album of her son on the kitchen counter for me to look at.  I opened the front cover and looked at the photo of her three year old son in a small trike against a plain white backdrop in a studio. The little boy’s empty, blank expression stared back me. I looked at the first image and I swallowed my tasteless, watery cup of tea.

“So,” I said carefully, “are you happy with them?”

“Yeah, they’re great!” She said smiling, completely oblivious of the vast array of technical and artistic faults that assaulted my professional training senses.

I continued flicking through the album. I cleared my throat and took another gulp of tasteless tea.

“What do you like about them the most?” I said, trying desperately to be diplomatic.

“I dunno, I guess they captured Toby so cute!” She said squeezing up her face and smiling.

Perhaps ignorance was really bliss after all.

Color management 101

Every single photo, out of 300 images, had a green colour cast to it. This is common when florescent lighting is mixed with another temperature of light, such as window light, or natural ambient light. It’s a very easy thing to fix. You can fix colour casts when you shoot or in Photoshop with the adjustment of one slider. It takes about two seconds and the problem is usually resolved. As a professional photographer, there was no reason for this green cast to be so dominant in the photos.

The images were also underexposed. It was almost as if the photographer had never used a light meter before. The white background looked dishwater. There was no brightness in Toby’s eyes and the colours fell flat. His red tshirt looked reddish blue and his healthy pink skin appeared dull. These are common exposure problems. A poorly exposed photo will never reflect colour the way it is in real life. There is just not enough light to reflect the colour back to the lens. This can easily be fixed with a light meter or exposure bracketing. There is no excuse for poor exposure in a studio with two big lights falling on the subject.

I also noticed that none of the images were sharp. All the images were, what we in the business call, “soft”. This means that they are not obviously blurry, but upon closer observation, all the important details such as eyes and lips were slightly out of focus. This is not very noticeable when the images are small but as soon as the image is enlarged they look very blurry. This is usually due to a slow shutter speed or a focusing problem. In the studio we use studio flash. This means that you can use a medium shutter for still subjects and the subject will turn out fairly sharp. When the photographer has missed the focal point, or, focused on something else by accident, the eyes may not come out sharp.

“If you don’t mind me asking” I said glancing at the logo of the well-known studio on the back cover, “How much did you pay for these images?”

“Three hundred and eighty five dollars” she said proudly. “Such a bargain, that’s like a dollar thirty per photo. Better than those rip-off photographers who charge fifty bux for an 8×10. I honestly don’t know how those sheiesters sleep at night!”

I spluttered a little in my tea. I was one of those “sheiesters”.

In case you’re wondering, yes, I had told her months prior to my visit that I was a photographer. I think at the time of my visit she forgot. I don’t think she took the time to remember much about other people. This became sharply evident at the time of viewing these horrible images. Not a smile on the little boys face, underexposed, a green colour cast, soft, and she had ALL the images…even the dud ones you really shouldn’t give to clients.

What bothered me the most? Apart from the dreadful things in the image it was the green colour cast that stood out to me first. I was shocked that a professional and very well known studio could produce such inferior work. Did they get the delivery man to do the shoot? What were they thinking?

Getting great colour is no hidden, underground trade secret that us photographers guard with our very lives. I’ll tell you how to do it right now. You hold a grey card under the light, right near or on top of your subject, correctly expose for the light and take a photo of the grey card. You then “set” the white balance using that photo. You do this in your cameras menu, under the white balance settings called “custom”. Each model might have a different way it’s done. In my Canon, you can set the white balance with a grey card or make finer adjustments to the white balance as you take the image. There is simply no excuse for a green colour cast in a professional photographic studio.

Accurate colour is the difference between a brides white dress being white or cream, even yellow. It is the difference between a jet black suit looking black or grey. It’s the difference between fair skin looking healthy and rosy or sickly and yellow. Obtaining accurate colour in your photography is so easy a child could do it. It seems hard because no one really understands colour management. You really must do it otherwise your colour will look highly unnatural. Don’t think that “turning the image to black and white” will save you from incorrect colour capture. Colour turns into grey tones. If the colour isn’t accurate, the grey, black and white tones will be not be correct either. Skin can still look flat and dull in black and white if no colour management process has been applied.

The moral of the story is that I can sleep at night, quite well, because I know I am providing my clients with beautifully colour captured images that will last a lifetime. They are designed to last and retain their colour after many years. My clients would much rather pay fifty dollars for a high quality, well shot image with beautiful lighting and colour that still looks good after ten years, than an underexposed image with a green colour cast that might last 12 months ….if you keep the photo away from bright light, perhaps in a dark corner of the house. But who wants to do that for photos of their child?

Make sure you use a grey card or a colour checker. Always aim for accurate colour in all your images for yours and your clients sake. You will be glad you did.


Correct Colour Balance


 Incorrect Colour Balance




About the Author

Amy is an multi-award winning photographer from Australia. She teaches enthusiast photographers how to take beautiful, professional photos in easy, plain English. She has a monthly photography emagazine and ebooks to help you create stunning images every time.

Comments (2)

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  1. Amanda says:

    Can you tell me why my colour looks different on my laptop than my computer? I don’t understand. Thanks Amy, keep up the great work.

    • Hi Amanda,
      Monitors need to be calibrated. That means they need to give you an accurate representation of true colour. You can do this with a little device that you place on your screen. It will read the light and adjust the colour to suit the conditions in the room, giving you accurate colour. Colour Munki sell monitor calibrators, they are a few hundred dollars and come with software you install. They give you step by step instructions that are very easy to follow. The software takes a “snapshot” of the calibration and you can give it a name. This name is called a profile. You can move the laptop in different lighting conditions again and calibrate it to suit the new conditions and call the profile a different name. Once you get it back home you can load the first profile so it displays colours according to your lighting conditions at home. It’s very clever and incredibly important.

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